Monday, March 12, 2018

Alaska Homesteading Winter Anecdotes

Outsiders may envision Alaska's long winters as all very similar, but that is not so.  Each year's differences offer variety and alternating advantages and disadvantages at our remote home.  This year, our firewood stores have benefited from low snow and high winds, our beeyard has suffered from a moose, and our entertainment has increased by visits of a curious marten to our hot tub.

Martens are described, in one source, as “nature's most adorable assassin.”  Isn't that an evocative description!  Related to weasels/ermines/minks, martens are the size of slim dachsunds.   They have short legs, a long body wearing a glossy brown coat, a fluffy, fox-like tail, small, rounded ears, a short nose, and bright eyes in a restless, alert face. They are really cute.  It is entertaining to watch them dash lightly across the surface of the snow, jump up, and then dive deep to a subnivean nest of voles. They grab one for dinner, and then dash off to some quiet picnic spot.  One day, my husband was sitting in the soaking tub where his splash aroused the curiosity of a marten.  The little critter bravely bounded not only to the tub, but also up two stairs!  Cute they may be, but their sharp teeth and claws are not condusive to close acquaintance.  Bryan splashed at the creature, who decided to retreat in favor of smaller meat or perhaps less water.

For some reason, we have had more frequent moose visitors this winter.  We watched one with a damaged rear leg struggle through overflow on the lake, have viewed others nibbling birch branches in our yard, and sighed over the depredations to our apple trees.  The animals' heavy footfalls punch deep holes through the soft snow and even along our hardpacked snow paths.  Saturday night,  a moose banged through the 4.5 foot high wire fence that encircles the bee yard, totally ripping out some of the lines and then, stepped over the rest with his 5 foot long legs.  I don't know why; tracks indicate that he was walking, not running.  Maybe the appeal of a straight line?  

Sadly, we think that our honey bees have died because when we knocked on each of the four hives, no one "answered" by buzzing.  So much for our insulating efforts last fall. Still, hives are complex societies, dependent on on a balanced calculus of warmth, humidity levels, population density, and food stores.  When we open them up in warmer weather, we'll try to detect the cause of their demise.  In the meantime, we have ordered four queens and mini-colonies from California.  I wonder how the honey will taste this summer?  Each year it is different, too.

COLLECTING FIREWOOD, a dead tree or two at a time
Until yesterday's one foot dump of snow, this year's low snow load (about 3 feet deep) reduced our chores of  shoveling and maintaining firm walking surfaces among our outbuildings.

That time freed up, we allocated afternoon exercise to snowshoeing our way around skinny dead trees in our north woods and cutting them out.  But by early March, we had depleted half our firewood and would need to collect a lot more for next winter.

Last week, high winds delivered a  boon - about a cord of good hard, high BTU birch.  For two nights, the wind turbine moaned like a wounded animal (which occurs only when the turning speed reaches its zenith).  The third day, we discovered that a 70 foot birch had pulled its rootball up out of the ground and was leaning, captive, in the embrace of adjacent tree branches.  Such a precarious condition is called a “widow maker” for the danger of walking beneath it.  Since the tree leaned right over the metal lines we had strung out for April/May birch sap collection, we needed to address the situation.

After we assessed, from all angles, the tangle of heavy trunks and strong supporting boughs above us, Bryan decided to tackle the supporting tree, which was slimmer.  He anticipated that the weight of the heavier, loose tree would cause both to fall in the same direction.  Once the decision was made, he donned kevlar chaps to protect his legs from the teeth of an errant chainsaw blade, as well as a helmet with safety glasses and ear protection.

The danger was that Bryan had to stand beneath the two leaning trunks first, to make the initial cuts (on the side you want the tree to fall toward). After that, though, he could retreat to the safer, uphill side to cut most of the way through the tree until a "hinge" above the first cut would snap the tree forward.  I was afraid though, that the interlacing boughs of the supporting tree might cause a "bounce" of the main tree back toward Bryan, (which has occurred before) so I stood back to watch the top and to alert him as soon as the upper boughs started to quiver.  I did; he heard me, backed away, and all was well.  Both trees crashed to the ground and we commenced limbing them.  Nature's gift was conveniently located uphill from and close to our wood corral, where we stack and dry birch for a year - so close in fact, that I dragged several loads of the small logs downhill by plastic sled.  How easy is that!  The larger and heavier rounds cut from the trunks will be loaded onto a ski sled hauled by our snowmachine.

Both local flora and fauna yield dangers, beauties, entertainment and resources to us, summer and winter.  I constantly feel that I am a visitor in a landscape that can get along just fine without me, and will do so, when I depart.  In the meantime, I am amused, chastened, informed, and humbled to be a part of it.    

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